As the trance beats by German musician äbvsd rise to a crescendo, Eva (Simone Bucio), an introverted sound foley, lets the music take control as her body begins to move in a manner that resembles a majestic mare performing the piaffe, a dressage move where the equine animal trots in place. She blends in with the gyrating clubgoers, despite her dance moves and the fact that a horse tail protrudes from her body. Resembling a work of Lynchian cinema, or an average night at NYC’s Limelight in the 90s, the visceral film by writer-director Ann Oren moves with cadence through the present unconcerned with the whys and hows of the past.
When I was DJing during the rave era, a friend purchased some military gas masks for a video shoot of his new techno song. He somehow convinced Fairuza Balk to be in it and the result was a trippy short film set to EDM music. “Piaffe” with its grainy texture (Oren shot in 16mm), surreal visuals, saturated colors, and techno-banger score resembles what could have started as an EDM video and merged into a feature-length fable. Shades of David Lynch and Roman Polanski accompany the mesmerizing film that features a hypnotic performance by Simone Bucio.
The film begins with a phone call from an agitated employer. Eva (Bucio) answers the phone, the voice on the other end asks, “Where is my f—king sound?!” He wants to speak to Zara, played by gender-fluid interdisciplinary artist Simon(e) Jaikiriuma Paetau, who is Eva’s sister and a foley artist (a person who reproduces sounds for films, television, and various media). Zara has been working on a pharmaceutical commercial for the drug called “Equili”, but it remains unfinished because they are in a mental institution. Eva panics and says she’ll drop off the sound clip in person later that afternoon.
In a large room that has been transformed into a makeshift sound stage/recording studio, lie several boxes filled with sand, grass, and dirt along with several types of shoes, boots, and props used by a sound foley. The pharma ad, which features a horse, is on a loop being projected on the wall. Eva takes it upon herself to finish Zara’s work and begins creating sounds that mimic the horse onscreen.
Cut to a screening room where the commercial’s director Piotr (the man who called looking for Zara) sits waiting for Eva. Played by German artist Bjørn Melhus who’s known for his experimental films, Piotr resembles Andy Warhol (minus the glasses with a bowl haircut). Vibrant colors saturate the scene courtesy of Danylo Okulov’s set design and Anna Philippa Müller’s costumes, from the red velvet seats to Eva’s purple blouse and Piotr’s neon green shirt.
Piotr watches the clip paired with Eva’s foley work and asks, “What the hell is this supposed to be?” She looks embarrassed. Piotr comments, “Maybe you should go out and look at some animals.” He tells Eva her work sounds mechanical, and he wants something more natural or human. Off she goes to try again.
The film written by Oren and Thais Guisasola, features Eva attempting to visit Zara at the psyche ward but is always turned away by the German version of Nurse Ratched played by Lea Draeger. There are also scenes of a botanist named Novak (Sebastian Rudolph) who interacts with Eva when he visits her home/sound stage to view slides of ferns on a room-size photoplasticon located in the same building.
Oren’s visual arts background is exemplified by the film’s unique use of images such as the ferns studied by Novak. Under magnification, they resemble the tail of a horse and sometimes the the vascular plants which are free-living organisms move like an equine animal. Like “Piaffe” which is a mishmash of gender and sexuality, so is the fern as we discover in a scene later in the film between Eva and Novak.
As Eva begins visiting a stable to study horses, she gets better at replicating their sounds. Shades of the excellent 2012 horror thriller “Berberian Sound Studio” starring Toby Jones, come to mind as Eva uses coconut shells to recreate the sound of hooves, and a gold chain in her mouth to reproduce the sound of a bit.
“Piaffe” enters fantastical territory as Eva begins to grow a horse tail. As the skirt grows long, she begins wearing it outside her clothing. With this new appendage comes sexual freedom as the once shy introvert goes clubbing, slams vodka, and hits up on the quiet and serious botanist Novak, giving him something more to look at besides ferns.
Set to a driving score that consists of Techno tracks by äbvsd from the album “Verge of Extinction,” and contributions by Daniela Lunelli aka Munsha, the film moves like a continuous syncopated beat with accents of abnormality as Eva embraces her new freedom. In a standout scene at a Berlin disco, the crowd moves in a frenzy to the trance music as Eva in just a t-shirt and underwear begins to resemble the equines she’s been studying. Her dance moves merge into a steady piaffe as she begins to grunt. Enhanced by the film’s grainy 16mm tone, it’s a grindhouse moment that only a visual artist such as Oren could achieve.
It’s hard to categorize “Piaffe.” While experimental comes to mind, it’s much more. Simone Bucio sells the story. The Mexican actress who resembles Charlotte Gainsbourg, starred in the 2016 sci-fi horror film “The Untamed” in which she plays Verónica, a young mother, who like Eva in “Piaffe,” experiences a sexual awakening, this time however at the hands (or tentacles) of an alien creature. Bucio is terrific in both films which would make a great double feature.
(3 1/2 stars)
Now showing at the Texas Theater